How the Walk of Faith is like Climbing Everest (One of Which I’ve Done)

How the Walk of Faith is like Climbing Everest (One of Which I’ve Done)

I wake up to the sound of an ugly wind howling through the gully and the wild flip-flapping of the tent walls. The neon hands on my watch tell me it’s 5:50am – plenty of time to lie there and relish the cocoon-like warmth of my sleeping bag.

Beneath the covers I wriggle my toes. Happily I can still feel them. The advice given by our expedition leader the night before had worked a charm. We’d created makeshift hot water bottles from our drinking flasks and tucked them into the base of our sleeping bags. Then we’d sprinted on the spot outside our tents to get our body temperature up before ducking under the covers to trap the heat. Eight blissful hours of warm escape from the icy chill outside.

everest

The freezing weather has taken us all by surprise. It was mid-October and usually by this time, so the rangers told us, the only snow left in Kosciusko National Park lay in scattered patches. But this Winter had been different. Unseasonal falls meant our three day expedition across the range was through metre-deep snow with only the occasional cluster of snow grass and granite rock peaking through.

Today we were heading further along the Main Range, with another two days to make it to the pass. The weather had been perfect up until this point. Bright blue skies and sunshine so strong that wearing sunglasses was not an option.

I lay still listening to the wind, willing the sun to rise and bathe the tent in warmth, but this morning it seems reluctant. No longer able to delay the inevitable, I take a deep breath and wriggle out of my sleeping bag. On comes another three layers over the thermals, my beanie, scarf and last, my partly frozen hiking boots. I roll up my sleeping bag and mat and stuff them in my backpack with the last bits of clothing. Then I unzip the front of the tent. Suddenly I am hit by a blast of wind that fills the tent and bowls me over. I can feel the pegs release as the tent lifts up and rolls backwards taking me with it.

The wind is screaming now, tossing the tent around like a feather in the breeze. In a flurry of tangled tent flaps, I struggle to find the opening, while grounding the tent with the weight of my body. I call for help, but another icy blast finds its way in and hurls me back again face-down on the cold tent floor.

What on earth am I doing here? 

There’s good reason why there are so few of us on the mountain, I mumble bitterly. Suddenly the whole adventure thing felt like an idiotic idea. Hiking in the snow is only for those mountaineering experts and extreme sports people. Those crazy people who delight in doing things no human was meant to do…

I had met them a few weeks earlier. Over a three course dinner, we had toasted them at a plush hotel in Sydney.

The event hosted by the Himalayan Trust was part-fundraiser, part-celebration commemorating the 25th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest by Australian climbers. They had stood on the platform as we cheered – four of them; a little older now and a little weather-beaten. They seemed like normal everyday blokes dressed in suits for the occasion. Nothing particularly distinguishable about them except the knobbly stumps on their hands in place of their fingers.

From the plush dining chairs of the Shangri-La hotel, it was fun to hear about the view from the summit. Nothing like being on top of the world! We listened engrossed as they spoke of the joy of those last exultant steps; of standing triumphantly on the final peak and fulfilling a life-long dream. We watched entranced by slides of coloured prayer flags waving in the wind, cheesy selfies of weather-beaten grins and a dazzling backdrop of white peaks extending far into Pakistan and India.

But then they spoke of other things – gale-force winds and angry storms that blew in without notice; frostbite gnawing at their limbs, near-miss avalanches and gaping crevasses that threatened to swallow them along the way, and how near the top, they had to pass by the frozen corpses of fellow climbers who had fallen by the wayside. You wondered if it was worth it.

_____

You don’t see all that at the start. You don’t fully understand the risks you’ll face or the sacrifices you’ll be called to make. At the beginning, it’s the summit that dominates your vision… those sweeping vistas that take your breath away and get you moving.

The faith journey usually starts that way. God gives you a glimpse of the top. A vision of sweeping potential and of breathtaking promise. You find yourself clamouring to get started.

But soon you discover there is no helicopter to propel you instantly to the heights. The climb begins on gentle sloping plateaus. A gentle call to step outside the comfort zone. A stretch in generosity. The relinquishment of things past. Those first decisions are not always easy. It’s a path that’s not been travelled before. But the summit is still in sight.

Gradually the easy slopes turn to more treacherous terrain, where reluctant faith muscles strain to make the ascent. The surrender of comfort. A risky move. The sacrifice of friendships that are no longer part of the journey. The slopes become even more extreme, rising as cliff faces with no ready footholds and sheer icy walls that invoke sheer terror when you look down.

Yet Everest climbers will tell you it’s not the steepness of the trail, nor the crevasses and avalanches or even the debilitating cold that pose the greatest threat.

The top stretch of Everest is nicknamed the Death Zone. It is here climbers face the greatest risk of all. Here where the air is thinnest, the body is starved of oxygen. In order to survive the highest peaks, you must acclimatise at camps stationed along the way. Each stop allows your body to adapt to lower levels of oxygen. If you ascend too quickly, you develop altitude sickness and eventually, cerebral oedema. Death is common on Everest.

We wish there was a way to be instantly transported to the top. We wish we could avoid the stops and starts along the way. But walking by faith is like learning to climb with less oxygen. It develops gradually. It grows like a muscle, getting stronger with each step into the unknown. Every act of listening to God and following him teaches us what it means to walk according to his ways and not our own. Each level brings you to a place of higher risk where you no longer rely on natural faculties to guide you through. It’s different on the summit. You can no longer operate the way you did on the plains. Here there is only the voice of your guide.

Eventually you reach the highest peaks of all. The views here are breathtaking. This is the place where miracles happen. This is the time where faith has its greatest reward.

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I eventually found my way out of the tent that morning. We’d strapped on our snowshoes and fought our way through the biting winds to make it home safely. That trip we scaled Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain. It may not have been the highest mountain in the world, but the views across the Snowy Mountains were spectacular. In spite of frozen toes and weary limbs, the summit had been worth it.

Now for Everest.

For we live by faith, not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7)

Postscript:

It was my plan to trek to Everest base camp last month. But a change in my itinerary meant I was ministering in New Zealand instead. And even though I missed the devastating earthquake that hit the heart of Nepal, many others didn’t. Can I encourage you to keep praying for this country to find its feet again?

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